When we speak about resurrection hope, what exactly do we have in mind? When we think about life everlasting, what do we think that life will be like? It’s quite a difficult thing for us to think about, because we only know directly about this life. Imagining any other kind of life is inevitably a largely speculative exercise. There are of course various intimations in the Bible. In the first place, there is the nature of the Resurrection of Jesus Himself: the fact that people struggle to recognise Him, the fact that His body does not seem to be subject to the usual rules that govern bodies – He passes through locked doors and so forth – would suggest that His risen body is in some way different from a human body in the ordinary sense. And yet the presence of His wounds, and the descriptions of Him eating and drinking, suggest that His risen body remains definitely human and material.
Paul, speaking about the same question, uses the analogy of the grain that is buried in the ground and grows into a plant. The plant is much more than the grain, and yet the plant stands in a very direct relationship to the grain, it grows out of the grain, it is the fulfilment of the promise of the grain. “You do not sow the body that is to be”, S. Paul writes, “but the bare seed”.
When we speak about resurrection hope, what exactly do we have in mind? It seems to me that there are two distinct ways in which we can go wrong in trying to answer this question.
The first is a naïve faith in bodily resurrection which makes it like a sort of resuscitation of our earthly bodies, and imagines everlasting life as being very much like our current life, only a bit better. It is natural enough to think about the life to come in terms of the life we already know. And yet the problems with this way of thinking about resurrection are twofold: the first is that in modern times it is very difficult for people to believe in this sort of resurrection; the second is that it doesn’t really do justice to what the Bible has to say. When we consider Jesus’ Resurrection appearances, it is clear that His Resurrection is a transformation, not a resuscitation.
The other way we can go wrong is to move to the other extreme, and instead of a crudely physical understanding of the resurrection, to spiritualise it to the extent that it loses its distinctively Christian meaning, or any meaning at all. Resurrection becomes little more than a sense of return to the source of life, some sort of cosmic mush of energy and light, something very different from the traditional Christian teaching. People in today’s world may be more willing to believe in eternal life in this sort of vague spiritual sense, but this idea doesn’t do any more justice to the biblical witness than the first.
If we turn to today’s gospel, we find the well-known words: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places”, in my Father’s house are many “mansions”, as the older translations have it. In Jesus’ teaching, the life which we are being prepared for is one which respects our individuality. It cannot simply be a matter of return to the life source, of returning to some sort of cosmic mush of light and life out of which we once emerged. In my Father’s house are many mansions; in my Father’s house there is plenty of room for you all, and it is so ordered as to respect the distinctiveness that the Father has given to each one of you. A Christian understanding of eternal life is not about some sort of vague spiritualised continuity of existence; we believe rather in resurrection, we believe that those qualities and characteristics that God has given to each one of us, our individuality and distinctiveness, we believe that each of us in our glorious variety will be raised up and transformed, and that all that is good in us will be brought to fruition, in that house with many mansions.
This is important not only in the way we think about resurrection, but also in the way we think about God. Think about the world as we know it. Think about the rich variety and diversity we see. Even in this one corner of the world which we are so fortunate to inhabit, think of the varieties of flower, of trees, of plant life, the hawthorn and the nettles and the brambles and the cow parsley in the hedgerows, the wonderful Loddon Lilies that can be seen in the marshy ground along the river, the bluebells and ferns in the woods, and the mighty oaks in whose shade they grow; think of the varieties of animals, the tiny wren, the red kite, mayflies, spiders, worms, badgers, deer. Think of the physical features of the landscape, the wonderful river with its tributary streams, the rich alluvial soil by the river, and the stonier ground rising into the hills around about. You might pick up two flints in a field, the same sort of stone, and yet each would in many respects be quite different from the other. You might take a handful of sand from the riverbed and under a magnifying glass you would see that each grain has its own qualities. This didn’t happen as some sort of cosmic accident when God wasn’t paying attention. This abundance and diversity and richness and variety is an expression of the creativity and goodness of God.
That is not to say that there is not unity. In the richness and variety of creation we nevertheless perceive universal elements; mathematical laws, the building blocks of matter, atoms, molecules, particles in their varied kinds which underpin the physical realities we know. But it is a unity which respects and even facilitates diversity. The great family of matter shares the same atomic and subatomic building blocks, and the same principles govern our existence, but that does not negate the distinctiveness of each creature.
And of course in Christian faith we see even in the very being of God this wonderful co-existence of unity and diversity, in the Holy Trinity we know both a Divine Threeness and a Divine Oneness that exist from eternity. Jesus says “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me”. The unity of God is not a smothering suffocating obliterating totalitarian unity. God is love from eternity, and this love must have something to love, and so there is the Son, the Beloved, eternally begotten of the Father, in the Unity of the Holy Spirit; and this love overflows into the vastness and beauty of creation. We see both unity and individuation in God as Trinity; we see both unity and individuation in nature; and so too in our resurrection hope.
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”. Yes, we long for the day when as S. Paul puts it in his First Letter to the Corinthians God will be all in all, but we believe too that the life to come is not some sort of general life in which the rich variety of creation is obliterated into some divine cosmic mush. We believe that creation in its rich variety is held in the unity of God, and we believe that in the life to come God will bring us, with those we love but see no longer, in all of our wonderful variety and individuality to a fruition and fulness in Him, through the Life and Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, who live and reign, One Holy Glorious and Undivided Trinity, now and for ever.